King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has invited an Israeli rabbi, a Vatican official and other religious leaders to help run his new inter-faith centre in Vienna - an initiative which could pave the way for freedom of worship in the Arab kingdom.
Rabbi David Rosen, an advisor on interreligious affairs to Israel's Chief Rabbinate, will be the only Jewish representative on a nine-member board of directors that will help run the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Centre for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue.
The other board members consist of three Christians (Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican), three Muslims (two Shia, one Sunni), a Buddhist and a Hindu. The Catholic representative, Spanish Father Miguel Ayuso, is Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
The centre, which aims to act “as a hub, facilitating interreligious and intercultural dialogue and understanding” and to “enhance cooperation, respect for diversity, justice and peace,” was inaugurated amid much fanfare this week at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.
Although founded by Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, it will operate as an independent organisation “free of political or economic influence.” The Holy See plays a “founding observer role.”
Speaking with Rabbi Rosen yesterday, he told me he believed the initiative will help to combat religious extremism by raising the profile of moderate voices. “Part of the problem for all of us has been that we have not worked hard enough to strengthen the moderate voices,” he said. “With regards to extremism and especially violent extremism, we have to take all the necessary security and intelligence steps to protect our society, [but] the real way to neutralize extremists is to give a higher profile, regard, respect and power to moderate voices,” he said. “I think that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
He believes King Abdullah’s motives for founding the centre are threefold: to further a vision which brings religions together in cooperation around global issues; to affirm a positive leadership role of Saudi Arabia internationally, and in the Muslim world (as opposed to Iran); and to help bring internal reform to a country where Christians are forbidden to build churches or worship openly.
The Saudis, he said, are keen that the Vatican participate in the centre because they are aware “they cannot change their society in a revolution overnight.” He said the hope is that by working together with mutual respect, reform will filter through to Saudis on the ground and the country will be able to “change the reality” from within.
The Holy See made it very clear at Monday’s inauguration that it sees the centre as helping to further reform in this area. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said it “will be the task of the centre” to ensure Christians and other religious minorities are “not deprived of the light and the resources that religion offers for the happiness of every human being.”
For some years, King Abdullah has been trying to loosen the grip of the Wahhabi extremists, and has made modest progress in reducing the power of Saudi’s notorious religious police. “He understands that if Saudi Arabia doesn’t change, the whole royal household is going to be pushed by the way, and so that internal change is a self-interested one,” said Rabbi Rosen.
Some also speculate the Saudi monarch has chosen this route because he views interfaith dialogue as a “safe track” to achieving his country’s goals, away from political and diplomatic exposure. The initiative has also not been without its critics. Some fear it could be just another talking shop or, worse, a vehicle merely to further Saudi interests, despite its promised autonomy.
Rabbi Rosen, however, doesn't see it that way and believes the centre has an over-arching and noble aim: to enlist the resources of religions to help bring peace, especially where religion is abused. “They [religions] need to be able to make a positive contribution,” he said, “and of course it’s my dream that we’ll be able to use this centre to make a contribution here in the Holy Land.”
He sees scepticism as necessary and healthy ("it’s important for us to continually test the waters”) but added: “If somebody, especially with a problematic past, extends to you a hand of friendship, claiming they want to do good things, then surely the responsible thing, especially from a person with a religious commitment, is to at least give the person the benefit of the doubt initially and allow that hand to be received and grasped and given the opportunity to prove itself."
Although an alliance between a Saudi King and an Israeli rabbi is significant, it wasn’t surprising as it had been in the works for over two years. More notable, Rosen said, was that he was first rabbi ever to be invited to meet a Saudi monarch and be received by him. The meeting took place two weeks ago, at the king’s palace in Morocco.
“I was actually surprised [to be invited],” Rosen said. “He was there to thank us for our involvement but we really need to thank him for his courage, because his part in this mission has been criticized by some very arch conservative elements in his own society.”
“It’s not a simple step to include an Israeli rabbi on the board of management,” he added. “That’s quite dramatic, and on that, he deserves credit.”